CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students went back to class Wednesday, but the return of in-person instruction at some schools was marred by confusion over COVID-19 protocols, a last-minute quarantine and anxiety about school safety.
CPS, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Teachers Union leaders agreed to resume in-person classes following a five-day impasse. The leaders have clashed over the safest way to have school during the city’s worst COVID-19 surge, with teachers voting to work remotely until city officials agreed to stricter safety precautions for students, teachers and communities.
As some schools struggle with COVID-19 spread and low staffing, some parents are keeping their kids home until conditions improve.
And while many parents and teachers were glad to be back, there were some hiccups.
At Jordan Community Elementary School in Rogers Park, students and parents waited outside Wednesday morning while staff quickly implemented a quarantine because of delays in reporting coronavirus cases.
At least 12 people tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, according to a teacher, but the district did not notify all the affected families before classes resumed. At least three students that tested positive showed up to school, said the teacher who asked to remain anonymous.
More than 200 close contacts of people who tested positive had to quarantine, the teacher said. Most in the school community learned of that Wednesday. Jordan staff checked in students who showed up and sent home some students with laptops.
Per CPS policy, unvaccinated students who have been exposed to someone who tested positive must quarantine for 10 days. Vaccinated students don’t have to quarantine.
“Those kids that aren’t vaccinated are going home til Tuesday,” said Sammiullah Alkozy, a parent of a third and first grader at Jordan. “We didn’t get any notice. They said, ‘If you are unvaccinated, you can take a laptop.'”
Jordan staff thought enough students and staff were in quarantine that the entire school would flip remote, but CPS did not approve the move, the teacher said. That’s when staff hustled to send out a robocall right as school began, and set up the check-in system at the door.
“Some parents heard on time, some were on the way and some parents just learned about it at the door,” the teacher said. “At the local school level, we worked to do what’s best. The parents did everything right. It’s a CPS, Downtown bureaucracy issue.”
CPS representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Spry Elementary in Little Village initially canceled classes this week, then reversed course to reopen for some in-person learning while shifting other students to virtual. A union representative there said earlier this week only one-third of students returned after winter break, and 15 of Spry’s 18 classrooms were in quarantine.
A school official was not immediately available to comment.
‘I just had to deal with it, bite the bullet and let him go’
In other parts of the city, parents said they had mixed feelings about bringing their kids to school and frustrated by the ongoing conflict between CPS and the teachers union.
Outside Cooper Dual Language Academy in Pilsen, Marisol de Paz watched as her two sons, bundled in winter coats and carrying backpacks, waited for the doors to open.
She had conflicting feelings about the reopening. On one hand, she was “excited” because she felt in-person learning was better than remote learning. On the other hand, the latest surge in cases brought on from Omicron was “worrisome.”
“Even if my entire family is vaccinated, I still worry because vaccinated people are still getting the virus,” de Paz said. “It’s worrisome — but we have to learn to live with it, while continuing to take precautions seriously.”
Brenda Flores, whose son and two nieces attend A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Wicker Park, said she felt “okay” about the coronavirus precautions in place at the school but felt the district should have done more to prepare for the Omicron spike.
“I just want CPS to have a better plan next time,” Flores said. “Even if it’s remote, they need to stop wasting our time and basically throwing away our kids’ learning because it’s been a mess, this whole system has been a mess.”
For some students, Wednesday was the first day at school since the start of winter break. Katanya Raby kept her third-grader out of Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn even before teachers voted to go remote. Carnegie has struggled with outbreaks, and community members and the teachers union raised alarms after a staffer died from coronavirus Nov. 26.
Despite her concerns, Raby brought her son back to school Wednesday.
“I’m still feeling a little uneasy, but he really needed to get back to school,” Raby said. “I just had to deal with it, bite the bullet and let him go.”
Clinton Davis, who has a second-grader at Carnegie, said he’s balancing his desire for his child to receive a proper education with concern over the spread of coronavirus.
“Trying to be a parent and a teacher is hard,” Davis said, referencing the days his child was out of school. “You see clearly that there’s a difference in the level of education that they’re going to be able to receive when we’re out of classes. Also, you’ve got to consider the risk to the parents and the teachers. If they don’t feel safe, the school has to respond to it; the city has to respond to it.”
Some students and parents were excited about returning to schools.
“I feel like I do better with my grades with in-person school than virtual learning,” said Armani Hopkins, a freshman at Englewood STEM High School. “I feel better mentally. My social life is at school. So I’m very excited and happy.”
Nicole Hopkins, Armani’s mother, said being back in school gives kids stability.
“I like that they’re back in school. I like that the teachers are back, too,” she said. “Nobody has all the answers. We have to keep trying and come together collectively. But the kids need some sort of outlet.”
Parent Vanessa Chavez felt “tentatively relieved” to be dropping off her 7th grade daughter at Pritzker Elementary. After participating in a roundtable with other CPS parents and public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady over the weekend, she felt better with the decision to return to school.
“I feel like every other industry within society that’s continued to have to work, we’ve all put in our work and pain and effort and blood, sweat and tears to try to figure out what works, what’s safe and what isn’t,” Chavez said.
Reyna Garcia said she didn’t want to see a return to remote learning at Cooper Language Academy for her fifth-grade son because it “didn’t work for him last year.”
She understood concerns about coronavirus but felt it was time to “learn to live” with the new reality by getting vaccinated and taking extra precautions, she said.
The previous week of canceled classes wasn’t a challenge for her because she’s currently working remotely, but said if she were working in her office she wouldn’t have been able to manage.
“My sister, who has four kids at Cooper, was struggling a lot,” Garcia said. “She was looking for babysitters. It was difficult for her.”
But not all parents were happy to return. Maria Gonzalez was not feeling good about sending her daughter back into the classroom at Cooper.
The district’s safety measures, she said, were inadequate at schools. She was frustrated with contact tracing efforts that failed to notify parents about positive cases in her child’s class, she said.
“They didn’t even inform me if there was a case,” Gonzalez said. “My daughter could have had it and I didn’t know. That’s one thing I’m very upset about. There’s no communication and I’m totally against the reopening.”
The fight between the district and the teachers union left her frustrated. She believed both sides had valid points, but the fight was ultimately “unfair” and hurt kids.
“The ones that were punished were the kids,” Gonzalez said. “Not the teachers. Not the mayor. Nobody else, it was just the kids.”
Block Club’s Colin Boyle and Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.
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